SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy -- two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.
2012 Record: 7-9
Key Pending Free Agents:Dwan Edwards, DT; Ben Hartsock, TE; Sherrod Martin, S; Captain Munnerlyn, LB
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (14), 2 (44), 3 (74), 4 (105), 5 (141), 6 (172), 7 (203)
Available Cap Space: $11.8 million-plus
GM/Coaching Moves: Hired general manager Dave Gettleman, assistant special teams coach Bruce Devan, running backs coach Jim Skipper, linebackers coach Al Holcomb; promoted offensive coordinator Mike Shula (from quarterbacks coach), QB coach Ken Dorsey (from scout), special teams coach Richard Rodgers (from assistant), and wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl (from assistant)
2012 Season Recap
Six weeks before the season, sixth-year center Ryan Kalil set the bar high in a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, guaranteeing a Carolina victory in Super Bowl XLVII. On cue, the Panthers stumbled out of the gate, losing eight of their first 10 games. Most disheartening was the stretch at Atlanta, against Seattle, against Dallas and at Chicago, in which Carolina lost by an average of three points.
Most of the blame for Carolina's frustrating first half was assigned to Cam Newton, while the eroding depth at several key positions -- most of them on the defensive side -- was largely ignored. Newton was criticized for fumbling away late chances to beat the Falcons, Seahawks and Cowboys. Then, he was criticized some more for taking losses too personally, not focusing on football during the Panthers' bye week and calling a reporter "sweetheart." Newton's immaturity once again became a suffocating storyline, one best summed up in two words: "suggestion box." When general manager Marty Hurney was fired on Oct. 22 with the team at 1-5, the assumption was that Newton's own calls for "change real fast" was the cause -- and not the salary cap bind in which Hurney's penchant for overpaying for homegrown players had put the Panthers.
In the minds of most, the 2-8 mark was where the Panthers' season ended. But they improved from that point on, winning five of their last six on the way to a runner-up finish in the NFC South. (The game that got away? Week 13 at Kansas City, an emotional tsunami of a contest played against the backdrop of the Jovan Belcher tragedy.) Newton broke out of his sophomore slump in the final six games, throwing for 1,474 yards, running for 347 more and combining for 14 touchdowns while turning the ball over once. In short, he became the kind of quarterback that might embolden a teammate to put his goals in writing and say to hell with the consequences.
Stat To Feel Good About
13. The Panthers defense emerged as a force late in games down the stretch, conceding an average of 11.3 points in the second half -- a 13-point improvement over their first 10 games.
If It Ain't Broke ...
Stick with the read-option, which was less broken than bogged down by Newton's lack of freedom at the line of scrimmage. The fact that Newton has run and passed for 7,546 yards and 48 touchdowns despite intense restrictions on audibling says volumes about his immense talent. It says even more about coordinator Rob Chudzinski; he went from a play caller who influenced offenses in San Francisco and Washington to a play caller whose offense failed to score more than 14 points in six of the Panthers' first 10 games. Replacing him with quarterbacks coach Mike Shula could be the move that keeps Rivera in Charlotte beyond 2013.
8.44. Percentage of snaps in which Josh Norman was in coverage that ended with him giving up a touchdown or a first down, the most in the league according to Pro Football Focus. But it says far more about Ron Rivera's ability to evaluate talent than it does about Norman, the fifth-round (!) draft choice Rivera started over fourth-year vet Captain Munnerlyn for the first 12 games. If Rivera sticks with that tack, his (supposed) lame duck season might not last past Turkey Day.
Must Fix It
The running game, which would seem to negate the case for the read option stated above. There is a need for more variety, and an end to the Panthers' days of lining up in the shotgun to get two yards or fewer. Carolina's decision to start mixing in more traditional run formations with the read-option played a large role in the team's 5-3 second-half turnaround. Look for the power/jumbo packages to increase under Shula, who made Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn the ultimate rushing combo while the offensive coordinator in Tampa. When used properly, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert are the most dangerous backfield in football.
More On The To-Do List
1. Trade out of the 14th pick. Rather than spend a high first rounder on a defensive tackle like Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, the Panthers should move down and wait for Florida's Sharrif Floyd -- especially if a trade allows them to move up in round two. One guy who could be there for the taking is Kentucky guard Larry Warford, a powerful blocker who could ignite the run game.
3. Harass Jim Skipper for ideas on how to goose the run game. Here's how good Skipper is at producing top-shelf rushers: During his first tour in Carolina, from 2002 through '10, he went through 10 starting rushers. Eight rushed for 100 yards in a game at least once. Three of those runners surpassed 1,000 yards in a season; two of those rushers, Williams and Stewart, are still on the roster. If Skipper can't get the Panthers' running game back on track, no one can.
What We'll Be Saying In July
The same things we did last July: that they will be a sleeper pick for the playoffs -- only this time the hype will be justified, if hushed to start. The running backs will be so certain in their movements once the ball smacks them in the gut, they'll seem as if they're being shot out of a cannon. Newton will take snaps from under center, and look comfortable doing it. The descriptions of the relationship between Newton and Shula will veer into Joe Montana-Bill Walsh territory.
If any unit seems vulnerable to a crisis of confidence, it's the defense. Tackle Dwan Edwards was an afterthought signing who became a steadying force on a line that was in constant flux. He matched a career high in tackles (52) and registered more sacks last season (6.0) than in his previous seven (5.5). He seems like exactly the kind of player that GM Dave Gettleman would not re-sign simply to differentiate himself from his predecessor. Should that come to pass, we will give the D no time to rediscover its late-season swagger. We'll simply chalk their early struggles as a mark against Rivera.